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Exploring Islam, 2

By Carolyn Ruff

Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 13, 1998


No understanding of Islam is complete without knowledge of Muhammad, who was not, as Muslims reckon it, the founder of Islam. Rather, they hold, he was guided by God to help humanity return to the original, true religion.

Muhammad was born about 570 in Mecca in what now is Saudi Arabia. Europe was entering the Dark Ages. Throughout the world, empires were collapsing, new societies emerging and religions spreading. The region's dominant religions were polytheistic, worshipping many deities.

Orphaned by age 6, Muhammad was raised by his grandfather and by his uncle after his grandfather died. Muhammad grew up to be a thoughtful, honest businessman who eschewed worship of tribal gods. He married and became the father of six children, two of whom died young.

At 40, he retreated to a cave outside Mecca to meditate. It was there, Islam teaches, that the angel Gabriel visited him and communicated the first of God's words to him. Muhammad continued to receive these revelations from God for the remaining 23 years of his life.

God instructed Muhammad to convey the message of Islam to the people of his region. This was not easily done. Muhammad asked the people to abandon their many idols and recognize Allah as the one God. He was met with reactions ranging from amusement to anger.

Muhammad also taught two revolutionary principles -- that Islam was the source not just of spiritual authority but also political authority and that the bond uniting people should not be tribe but shared religion.

Lippman writes that dissenters taunted Muhammad with demands that he work miracles to demonstrate authenticity. Muhammad claimed that only Allah could perform miracles. Muhammad insisted that every aspect of nature was an example of God's power. This did little to win converts.

After 11 years of mounting hostility, Muhammad and his small band of followers emigrated to the city of Yathrib, about 200 miles away. There he had better luck, and people embraced his teachings.

Muhammad established himself as the city's political leader and promulgated Islamic teachings. The city was renamed Medina, meaning "city of the prophet." After several years, Muhammad and his followers returned to Mecca, conquered it and established Muhammad as both religious and political leader of his people. By the time he died at age 63, Islam was established throughout the Arabian peninsula.

Within a century of Muhammad's death, Islam had spread, as much by military conquest as voluntary conversion, west to Spain and Portugal and northeast to Central Asia, establishing Islam as a formidable world empire. Islamic rule also pushed into northern Africa and other parts of the Mediterranean basin within the first 20 years of its establishment.

With every advance, Islam adopted and adapted features of many other cultures. By the Middle Ages, Islam was established in parts of Europe, for example, Spain in the west and the former Yugoslavia in the east.

In the 1500s, Hispano-Arab Muslim explorers arrived in America from Spain. In the early 1700s, the slave trade brought the first Muslims -- captured African slaves -- to this part of the world. By the end of the 19th century, free Muslim immigrants were reaching North America from the Middle East and other Muslim lands.

Today, more than 1,300 years after Muhammad, Islam continues to thrive, a growing, global religion with a powerful ideology that now binds one-fifth of the human race in a common system of beliefs.

Women's Rights and Islam

Traveling through the Islamic world, visitors notice that the status of women changes drastically from country to country. Westerners question why women in many Middle Eastern countries cover their heads and most of their bodies. They question the nature of freedom where women have very little political power or social clout.

In many cases, the differences are based on local custom only. Wearing veils, for example, is not required by the Koran but in some places is local custom. Other than Islam's requirement that women dress modestly, most Muslim women are free to dress and to behave like women of any other religion.

Historians note that, before the rise of Islamic culture in the 7th century, women in much of the world had few rights and were considered little more than chattel. Against that background, the Koran and Islamic tradition were positively revolutionary in teaching that men and women are spiritually equal and that women have the right to own and inherit property, seek divorce, gain an education, retain one's family name after marriage and the right to vote.

Muslims such as Rkia Cornell, who teaches Asian and African languages and literature at Duke University, argue that "every culture is inherently sexist to some degree." Cornell insists that, as a Muslim woman, she still has the freedom to control her own life. "Muslim women historically have had a strong role in Islamic society."

What some see as oppressive, Muslims view as protective. While Americans may regard a Muslim woman's attire as stifling, Muslims may view the way American women generally dress as sexist and compromising.

Nation of Islam

The Nation of Islam is a controversial organization in the United States. Formed by Elijah Poole (who later took the name Elijah Muhammad) in the 1930s, the group gained momentum during the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Formed in response to white racism, the Nation advocates separation from white society.

Despite its name, the movement is not accepted by mainstream Muslims as truly Islamic.

"Because the Nation holds that Elijah Muhammad was a prophet of God and that his mentor, W.D. Fard, was God incarnate, the Nation cannot be considered a branch or subset of Islam by mainstream Muslims," writes Susan Douglass of the Council on Islamic Education.

"Such beliefs are contrary to basic doctrines and tenets of Islam as defined by the Koran and Sunnah [Islamic tradition].

Furthermore, the race-based orientation of the Nation contradicts the universalist outlook advocated by worldwide Islam."

The Nation of Islam underwent drastic changes after the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, with most members following his son, Wallace, now named Warith Deen Muhammad, toward an orthodox branch of Islam called "American Muslim Mission." This group does not advocate racial separation.

Another faction, led by Louis Farrakhan, kept the name Nation of Islam and many of the separatist ideas.

Mother of the Renaissance

Muslims were the inheritors and guardians of the body of knowledge that created modern society and are credited with having kept scholarship alive through the Dark Ages.

After the decline of Roman government and civic order in the 5th century, Europe turned from the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, Romans and Indians. Elsewhere, however, Islam's large universities continued to advance these intellectual interests.

Although the Renaissance, which occurred between the 14th and 16th centuries, is considered the period of revival of art, science and literature, historians say its roots can be found in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Then, medieval scholars began to question traditional ways of viewing knowledge and regained access to important classical and Islamic texts.

European scholars came to Muslim cities to use the vast libraries. They translated Arabic works into Latin and, often inadvertently, soaked up Muslim culture. This was a pivotal time as the legacies of several cultures began to mingle -- most notably, Greek, Persian, Indian, European and Islamic.

During this epoch when intellectual curiosity was at a peak, education was introduced to those outside the Catholic Church hierarchy, creating a professional class of intellectuals.

Visiting European scholars return-ed home and helped to establish universities based on what they had translated from Islamic texts and what they had experienced from their immersion in Muslim culture. As a result, large bodies of Islamic knowledge subsequently were transferred to the rest of the European world.

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